The Silkworm: First Thoughts on Rowling’s Latest

True confessions time! I have not yet finished reading The Silkworm. Nonetheless, I have some thoughts I want to share about the book after only reading the first 28 chapters, what I think of as the first half of the book. This preemptive posting is not standard operating procedure at HogwartsProfessor, so let me explain why I’m commenting at significant length before having read all the way through.

First, it’s a promise I made to myself after reading Casual Vacancy and again after finishing Cuckoo’s Calling. I made a commitment not to read straight through future Rowling efforts but to make notes on each chapter as I went along. I pledged to do this out of frustration and hope. The frustration was that I found it very difficult to stop and take notes through the whole book on my first second-pass because I was in speed-read mode rather than the mental framework for close-reading. I still haven’t finished the outlining of Vacancy or Calling the way I want.

My hope was to slow it down, consequently, and savor the ride and all the clues and back references being made through the Silkworm mystery. Of course, I also wanted to be as sensitive as I could be to the structural clues and Rowling signatures we know from her Hogwarts Saga and previous post Potter publications. By which I mean principally “Ring Composition” and “Literary Alchemy.”

So far, so good. I’m 28 chapters in and I have made notes on each chapter, with thoughts about what the story seems to be about. Right now, I’m thinking it’s not unlike Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban in several ways. More on that in a minute.

If you’re interested in what I think Ms Rowling is doing even though you’re well aware that I haven’t finished the book, take the leap over ‘the jump.’ This is almost as much fun, for me at least, as guessing the elements and plot points of the Harry Potter novels as they came out. Here, though, if I hit any bull’s eyes, readers will naturally be skeptical that I peeked at the finish or read some reviews. I’ll risk that — and the much more likely possibility that I will be miles off and embarrassed tomorrow when I try to finish my close reading.

There are spoilers below, too, but only for plot points of the first half of the book and my guesses about the end! You’ve been told, pro forma.

Here are my first thoughts about the novel’s structure and its meaning.

The Silkworm has fifty chapters — but not really. Chapter 50 is separated from the rest of the book by a blank page and comes with the heading ‘One Week Later.’ It is an afterword or denouement. That gives us 49 chapters. Unlike a book with 50 divisions, 49 has a mathematical turning point; chapter 25 will have 24 chapters before it and 24 chapters after it. Look for a big event in 25, consequently, because, if the author follows her patterns from the Hogwarts Saga, she will be certain to give us a change of direction there that points to the big finish (and to the beginning as well).

For those thinking this is nonsense and that the author wrote a 50 chapter book because the story naturally broke into that many divisions, I can live with this objection. I’d ask you to note, however, that the first ten chapters with two exceptions are seven pages or less in length. The tenth chapter is fifteen pages long; only chapter 27 is longer at just barely sixteen pages. More important, there is a natural break in scenes in the midst of chapter 10, a break in scene and action that merited a chapter break in the first nine chapters (see p. 70 for the caesura). Why no break? Possibly it was to kep the numeric symmetry of the work intact. Possibly.

More interesting and less OCD (?), Cormoran finds the man he’s been looking for, dead, alas, and in a macabre death posture.

Seven plates and seven sets of cutlery had been set around the decomposing body as though it wee a giant joint of meat. The torso had been slit from throat to pelvis and Strike was tall enough to see, even from the threshold, the gaping black cavity that had been left behind. [Silkworm, p 124]

The body, in other words, is a centerpiece at a table set for seven. I’ve discussed the seven part structure of Casual Vacancy at some length elsewhere, but just that Ms Rowling as literary alchemist or just number fetishist seems to have an affection for the number seven — recall the young Dark Lord’s conversation with Horace Slughorn — and for rings of seven parts as in the Hogwarts Saga, suggests an alternate break down of the book’s structure.

Namely, that, as with the corpse surrounded by seven plate settings, The Silkworm has forty nine chapters that make up a novel of seven parts of seven chapters each. This would make chapters 22 to 28, the central seven chapters, the story pivot as much as chapter 25 as stand alone. Just sayin.’ as I read the chapters after 28, if the book is a ring, there should be correspondences between these parts. I’ll be looking.

I noted above that I’ve been thinking of Chamber of Secrets several times while reading and taking notes. This is the second part of the projected seven Cormoran Strike novels so there is that obvious connection between the books. More interesting and important, I have to think, The Silkworm, like Chamber, seems to be largely about ‘how to read a book,’ and features a book within the book whose characters teach the reader by their examples of what ‘key’s you need to understand what the book is about. [She actually has Cormoran use the word “key” as in ‘unlocking the meaning’ in chapter 28, so, no, this isn’t just John’s little hobby horse.]

And  Prisoner of Azkaban? The connection here is The Silkworm, like the Harry’s third year of synchronicity, Rebus, and other Jungian archetypes, is also afloat in a sea of alchemical imagery and symbols, both in the book-the book-is-about and its own course.

[Thanks here to James Thomas, Potter Pundit, for pointing out the error in my first version of this post!]

A quick explanation of The Silkworm’s major plot points in case you haven’t read the book description at Amazon and/or have no intention of reading the book anytime soon:

The wife of a semi-famous literary novelist hires Cormoran Strike to find her husband; he is known to run away for a holiday and she needs his help with their mentally handicapped daughter, age 24. It turns out, the husband has just finished writing a not very opaque allegory of his life’s journey as a “Gothic fairy tale, a grisly Pilgrim’s Progress.” It’s called Bombyx Mori, which we’re told is the “Latin name for a silkworm.” Strike’s personal assistant, Robin, explains:

“A silkworm?”

“Yeah, and you know what? I always thought they were like spiders spinning their webs, but you know how they get silk from the worms?”

“Can’t say I do.”

“They boil them,” said Robin. “Boil them alive, so that they don’t damage their coccoons by bursting out of them. It’s the coccoons that are made of silk. Not very nice. really, is it?” [The Silkworm, p 38]

The lead character in the author’s autobiographical allegory is named Bombyx Mori. It’s a hero’s journey story transparency, told in pornographic and shocking imagery, of his relationship with wife, publisher, agent, editor, and various lovers and at least one dependent. It doesn’t end well. The seven allegorical figures, all of whom  are either parasites or afraid of his artistic genius, wind up cooking and eating him for dinner, at a table, you guessed it, set for seven.

Cormoran and Robin’s task is to figure out which of the seven people depicted had the means and opportunity to kill the author of this libelous history — in which all their crimes and nastiness are spelled out in not very opaque story shapes — by figuring out the ‘key’ to the work.

Where I am now in the story, I think I know who Ms Rowling wants the reader to believe killed the Silkworm. It’s the literary agent or her two assistants, who may very well be her children by the author. There are clues about a woman who barks like a seal in the allegory and Ms Rowling describes the cough of the agent, who seems to be dying of lung cancer, as a seal barking (cf., pages 141 and 224). Her insecurities as a writer that she admits to Cormoran in chapter 27, one of the pivotal seven chapters, suggests that she secretly wrote the parody that caused another author to commit suicide and her consequent support of the author and his dependents because he took the heat for that. The ‘key’ that Cormoran talks about — repetition in images in Bombyx Mori of scenes and events in previous books — suggests that the author didn’t even write the book but that the agent had as his grand exit, complete with the literary inspired murder.

That’s my best guess at this point, which, of course, is the turn where really good mystery writers have the reader dismissing the case being made against the obvious suspect — the author’s wife — which would mean, egad!, two mysteries in which the detective’s client does the deed? Shades of the Defense against the Dark Arts teachers — and falling for the clues that point to the not so obvious but also hardly credible killer. And the already dying literary agent is that obvious next best guess.

What is the story really about? As a book within a book, it’s important not to neglect the obvious; The Silkworm is the title of both the unpublished manuscript and the Cormoran Strike mystery we’re reading. The characters are reading a book as we are. It’s not a silly assumption, then, to speculate that what the interior book is about is what the exterior book is about as well.

All the novelists in the book write about themselves, either their wish fulfillment fantasies or their real world nightmares written out as barely closeted fictions. As Robin’s explanation of the meaning of ‘silkworm’ suggests, this is the agony of the novelist. The art or product of the silkworm, she tells us, is not like the web of a spider, which is made from the insect’s substance but is sufficiently separate that the destruction of the art is not the end of its creator. The silkworm dies in its cocoon, its excretion of its substance in which the worm is hidden, so that the world can enjoy its beautiful art.

Ms Rowling is telling us that novels are best understood in light of the author’s autobiography, in other words, that, just as the silkworm dies in order for there to be silk, so an author’s life essence is distilled into his or her fiction. Hence the neurotic quality of literary lives. The author and man seemingly murdered in the novel, in other words, as likely as not, whether he wrote the book in question or not, wanted to die the way he does in the Silkworm manuscript, because that is the way he believes writers live.

There are at least four stories going on in The Silkworm.

The one I’m most interested in is the Cormoran B. Strike-Robin Venetia Ellacott romance and how each is struggling to get over the first loves of their lives. We only get this along the way of solving the mystery, of course, but it is the real main event and alchemical point of the work.

The mystery itself — who killed or assisted in the literary suicide of Owen Quine? — is a wonderful page turner so far and well worth the cost of admission.

There is also the implicit send-up of the London literary scene, the incestuous, demeaning, uncharitable, and back-biting world of agents, publishers, authors, and hangers-on. It’s not a pretty picture we’re given in the course of the story, and, no doubt, as ‘getting even’ and ‘settling scores’m is the point of the story-within-the story, so Ms Rowling is scoring points on people known and unknown along the way. Her asides about the illegality of tapping phones and Cormoran’s speculation about his dead author’s plan to publicize his new book with scandal sounds quite a bit like what folks were saying about the whole ‘hidden identity’ ploy Rowling used with the Galbraith pseudonym:

“When you stop and think about it,” said Strike, “it’s not a bad business plan for an egotistical, thin-skinned man who’s hardly selling any books. Kick off as much trouble as you can, get the book gossiped about all over London, threats of legal action, loads of people upset, veiled revelations about a famous author… and then disappear where the writs can’t find you and, before anyone can stop you, put it out as an ebook.” [Silkworm, p 243]

I like to think Ms Rowling is a woman of self-reflection and that it is not unlikely that she is capable of describing herself (in good humor here as her critics have done with acrimony) as both devilishly mercantile — creating the whole revelation kerfuffle to boost sales of Calling before the book went to paperback — and, more to the point, as “egotistical and thin-skinned.” Cormoran describes another nouveau riche maven as  being the sort having “that little pocket of insecurity just beneath the smooth surface that made them overcompensate, and sometimes overreach.” That sounds like an epiphany she might have had looking in the mirror. A silkworm’s cocoon — beautiful and the pained author concealed within it.

And that is the fourth book that I think Ms Rowling is writing for the serious reader — the story of what it is like to be a famous writer who is dying in her craft every day in a world insensitive to the self-investment and sacrifice behind the accomplishment. The painful pictures of women Ms Rowling was, is, and might have been — especially the red headed writer who is aged well beyond her years — are wonderful studies in self-awareness, I suspect, and to be admired for that, in addition to their story content.

Or so I think at the half-way point! My best guess again about the murderer? It was the agent, who actually wrote the Silkworm, who killed the supposed author at his direction to end their lives with a well-publicized bang and a deep thrust into the vitals of their enemies. Either that, or her assistant-children, Ralph and Sally, the Doberman poop stuffers, who worry about mom’s leaving money to Dodo and Company at her imminent death and set up the author’s wife to take the rap for her husband’s literary death.

Right or wrong in this guess, I’m excited about following the ring to its conclusion — a visit with Uncle Ted, I have to hope, at story’s end, and some progress in the Robin-Cormoran affair, if only her dumping the loser fiancee or revealing the troubled history that binds her to him.

There’s a lot to dig into here — the Jacobean Revenge Plays and chapter headings, especially Ben Jonson’s, the Latin, the names, her insertion of a “narrative’ and “plot” distinction that is a slap in the face of those critics that say she writes “great plots” and neglect her signature talent, and, ahoy, the seven seas of alchemy! More Monday!

Related links about Casual Vacancy:

Casual Vacancy 7: The Seven Part Ring Composition

Casual Vacancy 4: Literary Narcissism — Art of the Psychic Realm Reading Vacancy as an autobiographical, silkworm exercise


  1. Louise M. Freeman says

    John, you’ll have to forgive my commenting before I’ve read your full post: I am only up to Chapter 13 and didn’t want to spoil it. So, this is based only on pre-jump material.

    I had had the good intentions to re-read Cuckoo’s Calling before starting Silkworm but did not get it done. So, I decided to read them concurrently and make my notes alternating: first Chapter 1 in CC, then chapter 1 in Silkworm, etc. Obviously the chapters won’t match up perfectly, but knowing Rowling’s tendency to build the Harry Potter books on the same sequencing formula, this seemed as good an idea as any.

    As might be expected, I am seeing both parallels and contrasts. The first thing that struct me is that the two books start with the two birds of a feather (Robin and Strike) at complete opposite ends of the spectrum. In Cuckoo, we meet Robin on Cloud Nine (and Three Quarters?), blissfully happy over her engagement to Matthew; Strike, in contrast, is homeless and facing disaster in both his personal and professional life. He and Robin have a completely horrific first meeting and spend the first part of their professional relationship barely able to look at each other in embarrassment. In Silkwood, however, we meet Strike first, who is in a far better state than we’ve seen before, with a new apartment, his business booming and content for now to be single; however, it is clear by chapter 4 that all is not well in Casa Cunliffe.

    In Chapter 2 of Cuckoo, a rich client mistakingly assumes Strike can afford to turn down his offer of work; Strike winds up taking the case. In Chapter 3 of Silkworm, a rich client mistakingly assumes Strike cannot afford to turn down his offer of work; Strike dumps the client.

    In Chapter 5 of Cuckoo, we learn Strike has gained weight and this is aggravating his injured leg. In Chapter 5 of Silkworm, we learn Strike has lost weight and his leg is feeling better.

    Chapter 12 of Cuckoo, is supposed to be Robin’s last day; she is hurt he is not firing out a way to keep her on, but he surprises her with a “friendly gesture” of buying them both sandwiches; she ultimately offers to cut out the temp agency so he can afford her. Strike feels renewed optimism. In Chapter 11 of Silkworm, there is the first sign of tension between Robin and Strike, as she can tell he doesn’t like Matthew and she is further hurt by his suggestion that they might be able to eventually afford another employee. She buys the sandwiches “as usual” but in a decidedly unfriendly gesture does not tell him they have arrived. The employee who had previously acted with house-elf-like industriousness and efficiency actually clocks out at 5 in the middle of a sentence. Strike winds up grumbling and irritated with her.

    On the other hand, there are clearly some parallels. Both books start with Robin introducing an unexpected potential client to Strike; Strike takes on both cases thinking there will probably not be much to either and the prospective clients would probably be better off letting the police handle it. Chapter 10 of both books illustrate the incompatibility of Robin having both Matthew and Strike in her life: in Cuckoo is is the very short chapter where Matthew and Robin have their first argument over her working for Strike; in Silkworm it is the ill-fated meeting for drinks.

    That’s pretty much as far as I have gotten. Some random thoughts:

    1) A character named Christian Fisher working at a company called Crossfire. I’ll let John take that one.

    2) I find it interesting that both Christian the publisher and Elizabeth the agent go out of their way to point out very successful children’s books they have been associated with, even though our missing author is a writer for adults.

    3) Appreciation for one’s administrative assistants is clearly a Good Thing. Beyond Robin, we have 1) the unfortunate Mrs. Hook of Cuckoo (who falsely accused her husband of sleeping with his accountant Valerie, turns out it it was her sister), 2) the scorned PA of the first chapter of Silkworm, who Strike protects from being dragged publicly into the scandal of Lord Parker, and 3) Miss Brocklehurst, who is suspected of infidelity by her boss but on whom Strike has so far been unable to gather any dirt. What then, does this say of Elizabeth, who treats her own assistants literally worse than her dogs, to the extent of making them clean up the nasty pooch’s vomit and poop?

    4) Knowing Ms. Rowling’s tendency to mention lockets, vanishing cabinets, etc that will turn out to be important later, I am wondering, why, of all the “odd little” businesses Matthew could be auditing, he happened to mention a nearly-bankrupt publishing house?

    5) Ms. Kent initially mistook Strike for Quine. We learned in Cuckoo that Strike has two half-brothers. Could there be a connection?

    All for now, back to reading!

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